Album Review: Gaining Perspective with Bon Iver

Bon Iver predicts an early autumn with the release of their fourth installment, i,i.

Written by Lauren Cook

Photo courtesy of Byte

Photo courtesy of Byte

Bon Iver’s fourth album is here and earlier than previously expected. Originally slated for an August 30 release, Bon Iver set fans into a frenzy when the band decided to release the entirety of i,i song by song on August 8,  after parts of the album were leaked. According to their website, i,i is the final installment of a cycle started by For Emma, Forever Ago, released in 2008. Each album represents a different season: “from the winter of For Emma, Forever Ago came the frenetic spring of Bon Iver, Bon Iver, and the unhinged summer of 22, A Million. i,i is the final season to come ­— fall.

Though some might equate winter with the end, Bon Iver chose autumn to close to end the series, and for good reason. Autumn is the season of  reflection and change, and frontman Justin Vernon has much to look back on. Following a breakup with his previous band and girlfriend, Vernon spent four winter months isolated in the woods of Wisconsin. It was there that he began to create songs that he would later release under the moniker, Bon Iver. The album, For Emma, Forever Ago would quickly garner attention in the music world. From there, Vernon would expand the project to create a globally-recognized ensemble that constantly pushes the boundaries of music. Despite no longer being a one man show, the project is still spearheaded by Vernon, with the lyrical content of each song being derived from events in his life. The past three albums all saw Vernon struggling against something — either himself, the outside world, or his spirituality — but he would eventually come to a conclusion. However, the struggle is finally over in i,i. Instead, Vernon takes a look back at the last 12 years of Bon Iver and prepares for what’s ahead.

Like its predecessors, i,i is a work of art. Though Bon Iver might not churn out as many projects as their peers, the quality and level of detail they put into each song makes it well worth the wait. Given it’s reflective nature, i,i is overall a brighter and more positive album than some of Bon Iver’s past projects. Now that Vernon is no longer dealing with the things that troubled him in past albums, he can look back and appreciate the lessons that were learned from them. i,i also heavily references the past three Bon Iver albums, both in the lyrics and sound. 

Photo courtesy of Jagjaguwar

Photo courtesy of Jagjaguwar

Sonically, i,i draws most of its influence from Bon Iver’s past works. Tracks like “Hey Ma,” “Jelmore,” and “Faith” bear some resemblance to 22, A Million, while folk ballad “Marion” would fit right at home on For Emma, Forever Ago. On Reddit, Vernon confirmed speculations  that the track “We” is a direct reference to “Minnesota, WI” from the self-titled, given its matching bassline and theme. Then there are tracks like the opening “iMi” that blend these seemingly drastic styles together to invent a totally new sound. Even then, Bon Iver continues to expand beyond their sonic palette with their various guest features. Moses Sumney, Bruce Hornsby, Jenn Wasner from Wye Oak and the Brooklyn Youth Choir all star alongside Vernon on the Gospel-inspired track “U (Man Like).” No style is outside of Bon Iver’s wheelhouse.

i,i also makes several callbacks to past Bon Iver themes. The religious aspects of “Faith” are a reference to Bon Iver’s past album 22, A Million, where Vernon dealt with his belief in a higher power. Though simple, the folky sweet lyrics on “Marion” parallels the relational feel of For Emma, Forever Ago. In addition, Bon Iver remains nostalgic on the song “Hey, Ma,” where he evokes feelings of childhood and reminds listeners to call their moms.

However, i,i isn’t just about looking to the past —  it’s about change, too. Vernon addresses the changing climate on “Jelmore.” The song is minimalistic, with Vernon’s voice accompanied only by distorted synth notes and the occasional saxophone. The song tells of the pre-apocalyptic destruction of the Earth. Vernon sings, “We’ll all be gone by the fall / We’ll all be gone by the falling light,” alluding to the earth’s quick demise as well as the season the album represents. Other tracks, like “U (Man Like),” are more anthemic, calling for the change of the political systems that allow for poverty to exist and hoping to rally listeners to the cause. 

Even Vernon’s vocal performance has changed. His voice is just as strong as previous albums, but this time, it’s stripped of the glitchy autotune that listeners heard on 22, A Million and the echoey self-harmonies on For Emma, Forever Ago and Bon Iver, Bon Iver. His voice is now front and center, perhaps as a way to signal to listeners that Vernon is free from the things that used to plague him.

The Vernon of today is much different than the Vernon that was holed up in a cabin 12 years ago. He’s happier now. He’s had a chance to learn and gain perspective on life. And he’s more content with things ending, in all senses of the word. Whereas past Vernon would have desperately searched for something to provide “a safety in the end,” current Vernon doesn’t “have a leaving plan” as quoted from i,i’s final track, “RaBi.” Despite i,i being the end of the cycle, Bon Iver is not going anywhere soon. So for now, cozy up, grab a pumpkin-flavored drink, and plop down in front of the fire.

Autumn is here.